Friday, June 1, 2012

Scary Camping Stories Series

It's the first of June and that means it is officially camping season. There is something primordial about sleeping outdoors. It's like we're trying to touch our ancestral roots. For us at Alone at Night, nothing makes us feel more alive than sleeping under the stars. But a nice night by the fire can turn terrifying when the fire dies out. Join us for this series of true stories involving wild animals and even more wild people.

Throwing Rocks

I was horse packing in the Sierra's one summer back in the late 70's. It was one of those brutally hot California days where you just put your head down and try to soldier on. Should really have stopped but was trying to do another 10 miles to Lake Almanor.

I was leading my horse up a trail when he started acting up; stopping, pulling, and rearing. I was hot, thirsty, pissed and in no mood for silly games. As I was trying to calm him down, he suddenly charged past me, knocking me flat and heading up the trail. I was recovering, when I heard a thump near me, looked over, and saw a mountain lion crouched and ready to take the next leap right on me. He was about 10' away.
Time froze, my mind went blank, and all I could think of was the rifle in the scabbard on my horse's saddle... that was rapidly disappearing up the trail. I started to get my legs under me, and he snarled, and started to gather himself for a leap.

Without thinking about it, I grabbed a rock and nailed him right between the eyes. He snarled again, and I nailed him with another one. And another. As fast and as hard as I could throw them while on my ass. I hit him on the nose with a 4th rock and he took off up the trail, veering left up the mountain. I threw a couple more as he scrambled up the hill and then he was out of sight... I could hear him moving off so I picked myself up and started moving up the trail after my horse.

About 30 minutes later, I found the horse tangled up in some brush. I got him free and then suddenly started shaking uncontrollably. I couldn't stop for at least another half-hour.

I've been in the mountains many, many times, and that's the only time I've ever really been in serious danger. I've seen bears, mountain lions, had a lynx prowling my camp, been in a major thunderstorm with lightning strikes all around me and no place to hide, winter camped in a surprise storm, etc. But that encounter with a mountain lion was the one that was really dangerous. Turned out ok, as you say, but only because of luck.

Bad Campers Make Bad Bears

I  was on a trek at Philmont Scout Camp in NM. On day 9, I went back to our camp in the middle of the day to get my water bottle I had forgotten. I walked up to our cook fly and picked up my bottle. When I stood up, I saw the bear. Only 6 feet away, standing up, just looking at me. She was about 5 feet tall. I backed away slowly (after looking around really quick for other bears). I started banging pots and pans, throwing rocks, etc. She didn't care. In all, she ripped the sump pipe out of the ground, pulled a pack off of a tree and removed a packet of oatmeal (without damaging the pack!). She pushed on 5 tents, including mine, on which she broke a fiberglass pole, and put gashes in the door, window, and rainfly. She then went to our bear ropes, which were hanging all the smellables, and she started pulling on the ropes. She knew what she was doing and wasn't scared of people. After that, she moved on from our camp, and I imagine to other campsites in the area.

That evening, two rangers came past our camp and told us they had put her down. Turns out she did the same thing the summer prior. The rangers trapped her and sent her 600 miles away to southern CO. Over the winter, she came back. Once a bear does that, they have to kill the bear. I was bummed my tent was ruined, but I was more bummed in the end. I was in her house, not the other way around. Bad campers make bad bears, but at a scout camp, they can't have a bear that isn't afraid of people.

She was in the area with another bear - a male. The rangers were hoping that the male would move on after the female was killed. As far as I know, they didn't have to kill the male bear. I hope they didn't.....

Wandered into Drug Country

I was going backpacking in Los Padres National Forest in California and I show up to the fire station where I'm parking my car. I ask a ranger if I can park there and the first words out of his mouth are "Ya'll lookin' for plantations?" Of course we weren't, and were kind of like 'wtf is he asking us,' so he said "never mind." And we set off.

We did 15 miles basically into desert brushland that day and realized we were about 4 miles off the main trail (poor markings) that evening. We were too tired to turn around and had to camp right there, off the main trail, in possible drug territory. We went to sleep and at some point in the night my buddy and I woke up and kept hearing footsteps around our tent. We were scared shitless. I swear to God it sounded just like footsteps walking around us at about 10 paces. One time it sounded like they walked straight up and stopped on our front flap. I bolted up and said "Hello? What do you want?"

Nobody ever said or did anything outside, and we as hell weren't going to instigate anything, so we eventually fell asleep and got back on trail in the morning. Later, we get off the trail (they were not maintained at all) and end up walking down the middle of a river for 4 days. The first sign of humanity we see is a short road going up to a fucking airstrip in the middle of the mountains. One end ran into a mountain, the other had a dangerously close ridge. We had no choice but to walk up and try to find where the hell we were. As we were on the other side of camp, which looked like a small cluster of military barrack-type cabins, one flying an American flag and one with a military insignia, we had to walk straight down the runway to get there. That was the second time I was scared shitless in 4 days.

We found some guy doing some carpentry who didn't seem to live there, but was visibly distressed with our appearance until we explained ourselves and he told us how to find the road. When we find the gate, it is covered in signs that said stuff like "City justice is kinda iffy, Mountain justice gets it done in a jiffy" with a shotgun in the middle of it. We got the hell outta dodge.

A Storm and the Imposters

My girlfriend and I were backpacking various nature preserves in Florida a couple of years ago. We arrived at one particular park, with a huge tropical storm chasing us (if you have ever camped in Florida, you know how intense those storms can get). Take note that we were the only car in the lot. We were with Boston Terrier, bookin it about 3 miles to the first good camp spot, trying to beat the storm.

The first mile or so from the parking lot, all you can do is wade through a very sandy road until you get to a better trail. When were were about halfway through this part, an old 90's model Chevy diesel pickup rolled by us. They had a very, very generic magnet on the door that said something like "Game Control." No actual government markings, these were definitely just random guys. They kept asking where we were headed, how long we were going to stay, if we were alone, things like that. We were as vague as possible, even lying about a few details.

Eventually we shook them off and hiked on (we had no choice by this point). We got to the first camp, and decided to set up our tent around the bend a ways, not where the designated spot was. It was nearly dark, and we were racing to get the tent setup before the storm hit. Her dog started freaking out and ran off. This is a very trained and obedient dog, so this was strange. This dog NEVER runs off. My girlfriend started chasing after the dog into the darkness with no light, so I chase after her to keep everyone together. Eventually we find the dog, get back to camp, and get in the tent about 30 seconds before an intense storm started.

Around 2am, we heard a diesel truck pull up very near our camp. I'm a big time car guy - I can tell you it was definitely that same Chevy diesel. I was clutching my 6" buck knife, ready to slash through the tent and initiate all murder/rape prevention sequences. About 10 minutes later, the truck took off. I assume they couldn't find our tent.

I don't know for sure that they were looking for us, but I am fairly certain. We were the only hikers in that park, and they could definitely assume we were at the first camp, because of the previous pending storm we were clearly trying to beat. Also, my girlfriend is a looker. I pretend like I didn't see the dirty looks in their eyes when we first encountered them, but I know I did. Had we set up camp at the designated spot, it might have gotten ugly. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about that night.